Fighting Cancer One Joke at a Time


Finding humor in cancer has helped me cope.

cartoon drawing of blogger and prostate cancer survivor, Ron Cooper

Is there any room for silliness on our cancer journey?

A couple of years after I was diagnosed with aggressive prostate cancer, I discovered not only that you can be silly sometimes, but it’s been darn good for my mental health. That epiphany came to me after reading the gallows humor penned by Nina Riggs, a poet who died of metastatic breast cancer disease at the age of 39 in 2017.

Even the hardest of hearts would melt to learn more of Nina’s life. She was a young mother and wife with a promising publishing career when cancer came storming into her life. Those reading her cancer journey, “The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying,”would understandably come away sobbing over a life cut too short, but also chuckling over Nina’s deliciously dark humor.

For example:

“Thank you for the taco casserole. It worked even better than my stool softeners.”

“Thoughts and prayers are great, but Ativan and pot are better.”

“Xanax is white, Zofran is blue, steroids make me feel like throttling you.”

“Thank you for the flowers. I hope they die before I do.”

Before stumbling across Nina’s funny handiwork on Google, I was stuck with a perpetual feeling of gloominess and negativity. I needed to see a ray of sunshine somewhere on this bumpy journey. Reading those hilarious gems from Nina set me down the path of writing cancer-related humor, mostly for my own amusement, to help soften the hammer blow of a disease that is trying to get the best of me. Sometimes, I share a quip or two with my #cancer friends on Twitter.

Nina taught me that giggling and guffawing is as good a medicine as chemotherapy and radiation. I learned that cancer can steal my future, but not the present moment. And I learned that since my cancer’s never going away, I must wrestle free from its stranglehold and choose a new way forward.

So, I choose to find mirth where there was misery, frivolity not fear, and wonder over weariness.

I’ve also learned that because cancer does not define me, my choice of humor is not tied exclusively to the world of oncology. For example, I love listening to Conan O’Brien’s podcast, where the master of late-night humor matches wits with actors and comedians via SiriusXM radio.

I also love the clever wordplay of an NPR show called “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and end most days watching stand-up comedy on the Dry Bar Comedy, Comedy Central and 800-pound gorilla channels on YouTube. These nighttime routines keep the cancer beast from roaring and pave the way for some well-needed shuteye.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I still worry that my prostate cancer may return and finish me off. Yes, I still get messed up with anxiety when my three-month PSA (prostate-specific antigen) test approaches. And yes, I get a little panicky when a tremor or sharp pain pops up out of nowhere, giving me pause that cancer has made its way back and will knock me off my remission pedestal.

Most days, though, I aim to perfect a good balancing act with cancer. I try to avoid the extremes – depression when I’m like a limp rag doll with no motivation, or outright denial that cancer ever came calling.

As a veteran survivor of eight years, I like to see myself as an acrobat flying through the air with the greatest of ease, at times falling into the net. Then I shake myself off and doggedly climb the ladder again to the highwire — all the while smiling and grateful for secondchances.

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